By Danielle Kerem '12
This March will mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire--the worst workplace disaster in New York City's history. The flames that engulfed the factory on March 25, 1911 claimed the lives of 146 garment workers--mostly young women--and elicited a broad public backlash against the negligent safety regulations blamed for the disaster.
The tragedy also had an indelible impact on Frances Perkins, a prominent Mount Holyoke alumna who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Perkins witnessed the fire that day, and, according to Professor Daniel Czitrom, the horrifying event compelled her to "push through important labor law reforms, improve safety codes, and protect women workers" in the aftermath of the disaster. Perkins herself described the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as "a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy."
In observance of the centennial anniversary of the fire, and in tribute to Perkins' life of public service, the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections is presenting an exhibit titled Frances Perkins's Labor Legacy, a chronological portrait of Perkins and her role in the labor movement, February 28 through March 31. A 1902 graduate of Mount Holyoke, Perkins became the first female member of the New York State Industrial Commission; when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her as Secretary of Labor in 1933, she also became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
Among the rare documents, photographs, and books featured in the new exhibit are excerpts from an oral history with Perkins on her recollections of the fire. A copy of her 1934 book People at Work and a 1933 edition of Llamarada that was dedicated to Perkins will also be displayed, along with various photographs and articles about her. Among the photographs on exhibit are one of Perkins with President Roosevelt at the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act and another of her in conversation with President John F. Kennedy at an anniversary dinner celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act.
The exhibit is on display in the lobby of Archives and Special Collections, located on the lower level of Dwight Hall. It is open for viewing on Monday from 1 to 5 pm and Tuesday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Photo at right: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Bill, August 14, 1935; Perkins is behind his left shoulder. (Courtesy of MHC Archives)
Intro photo: Frances Perkins, 1902 (Courtesy of MHC Archives)